Over and over, I find that I am my own biggest roadblock to productivity and success. Technically, this is great; as long as I overcome my hindering tendencies, BAM! – I’m basically guaranteed to reach my goals. On a daily basis though, grinding trails through the mountain range of my defensive mechanisms, it feels discouraging. I’ll make progress, only to relapse at the smallest shift in my environment. Am I the only one who hasn’t figured this out yet?
Latest example: last week I spent three lovely afternoons listening to April Bowles‘s “Build a Successful Creative Blog” course on CreativeLive. I enjoyed it, a lot. The content was pertinent and educational, and the presentation friendly and up-lifting. April delved into a number of blogging aspects that I’m still too inexperienced to have a grasp on: how to identify your ideal reader; how to figure out your preferred communication formats; how to stick to writing about the things you care about; how to use your best voice and convey energy. (For anyone interested, CreativeLive will be re-running a free broadcast of the course on May 31st-June 1st).
You’d think that hearing all the suggestions would fuel my determination. That learning a concrete approach for blogging would empower me to produce with abandon. Instead, it planted a hedgerow of self-doubt smack in the middle of my writing routine.
I don’t know how it manages, but my brain took all of the good suggestions from April’s podcast and wove them into a big shiny vision of the IDEAL BLOG (a magical land where great photographs roam amidst pages of engaging content; where readers can’t wait to consume my thoughts for breakfast; where each sentence offers a fresh pastry of companionship, stuffed with helpfulness and dusted with humor). Alive, awake and arrogant, the Ideal Blog smugly settled on a pedestal of “attainable only in your dreams” and began smirking down at me: “You dare. to aspire. to ME?”
And I do, I do dare. Except that its blinding glory is fearsome. It makes everything I achieve right now seem inadequate. Any effort of mine, when compared to this ideal, falls short (no duh). A weird loop of negative reinforcement festers: I’m able to predict that my next attempt won’t reach perfection either. I expect failure before I’ve even started – and sure enough, the result isn’t perfection. A suspicion creeps in that I’ll have to fail for YEARS before reaping any rewards (even such basic ones as feeling good and confident about the way I choose to spend my hours). If that’s the case, how can I tell if I’m wasting my time? What if it turns out that I’m not as worthy as I hope to discover myself to be?
Thus the fear of defeat grows and grows; it looms and paralyzes. It makes those first steps towards progress terrifying to take. It assures that the sparkly and lofty IDEAL stays unreachable. (It gives me writer’s block!) All in all, it’s a rotten way to let myself think.
I’ve actually learned how to beat this in myself, but it will probably take me years of practice before the solution becomes a neutralizing patch, my second nature. Last summer, I reluctantly let my husband train me up for a half-marathon. I started out suffering. Not because of physical pain (though it was present in one way or another during every run), but because every single run was a mental battle against the fear of failure.
For instance, I’d set a goal of running one mile. And without realizing, I’d set these ridiculous expectation for myself: you must go the full mile regardless of how you feel; you must run a mile in 12 minutes or less; you must have an easier time today than yesterday; you must not experience pain; you must feel so comfortable running that you’re able to focus on thoughts other than “breathe, step, step; breathe, step, step”; OR ELSE YOU’RE FAILING.
Guess how many times, by these expectations, I “succeeded” at running? Like, 7 maybe, out of MONTHS of training. I understood that with that kind of suffering, I couldn’t sustain it, couldn’t handle increasing the distance and duration of the runs. So very slowly, and very clumsily, I taught myself a healthier way to manage expectations.
The trick, I discovered, had two parts to it. First, separate the GOAL from the EXPECTATIONS. The goal should be the achievable horizon – within your reach, a desirable future, but more of a general suggestion than an immediate requirement. Expectations, on the other hand, should very much stem from recent past performance, and depend on your immediate situation – your today. Second, make your expectations minimal and fluid. For me, this meant “show up, and try the best you can today”.
So towards the end of my training, I expected the least of myself and achieved the most. I’d have a goal – 9 miles. It would be nice if I made it 9 miles. And then I’d lower my expectations to something so small, it would be hard NOT to achieve them. I’d tell myself, all you have to do is get dressed, go out, and start. Just move your feet. There, just that. And once I began to jog, I’d tell myself – you only have to do the next 0.5 miles. And with each half mile, I’d evaluate how I felt. Can I tackle the next 5 minutes? Yes. Alright then.
So that’s what I will try to remember to do in the face of the daunting IDEAL BLOG. I will remember to set realistic expectations, and keep them fluid based on my circumstances today. First – just write, just put something out there, every week, as well as you can. Take photos – of anything, of everything, even when they’re poorly lit and crooked. Get better, continue at it. With time, learn the topics that you can’t stop talking about. With time, meet the people who care about the same things as you do. Show up, and do your best. Revise, improve, keep at it. Show up, and do your best. Eventually, you’ll get there.